Speech by the President of the Republic of Finland, Mr. Sauli Niinistö, at the Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, 9 April 2019

Photo: Arctic Forum web stream

It is a great pleasure for me to participate in this forum for the third time. I want to thank you, President Putin, the Russian Government and all the organizers, for hosting this event. After Salehard in 2013 and Archangelsk in 2017, with St. Petersburg the location of the forum has now moved even closer to us Nordics. And I am indeed particularly delighted to be sharing this stage with so many Nordic colleagues today.

We are living in uncertain times in international relations. Confrontation and rivalry seem to be on the rise.

As a remedy, you often hear people stressing the importance of dialogue. In those interventions, dialogue is correctly seen as a means to reduce tension, to manage risks and to rebuild trust. Yet all too often, that is the end of the story. We just talk about dialogue instead of engaging in it. Dialogue is difficult to have unless you actually meet your counterparts.

I firmly believe that Arctic issues deserve to be discussed at the level of heads of state and government. Face to face, in dialogue. This has been the rationale behind the Finnish initiative to convene a first-ever Arctic Summit.

When we sounded out reactions to this idea last year, we received promising signals from all parties. But then, tensions originating far away from the Arctic intervened with our plans. It is good that at least the tradition of these kinds of forums continue. Although it of course does not replace the Summit idea.

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The main Arctic concern for me continues to be climate change. On the one hand, here in the North, we are among the first ones to feel the heat. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. The IPCC report from last autumn shows the Arctic to be one of the most vulnerable systems on our planet.

On the other hand, what happens in the Arctic has direct consequences for the rest of the world. The melting of the Arctic sea ice accelerates climate change on the global scale.

We have to break this vicious circle. We have waited too long before taking action. The good news is that we know what needs to be done. In fact, the two main parts of the global solution are very simple.

First, we have to rapidly reduce new CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement is a good basis for this, although we still need to increase our level of ambition. Recent indications from our Russian hosts, that they are also planning to ratify the Paris Agreement, are most welcome.

Second, we have to remove old CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. In improving global carbon sinks, the sustainable use of our forests here in the North can play a key role.

Beyond CO2, however, there are also other factors contributing to climate change. One of them is black carbon, which is particularly relevant for the fate of the Arctic sea ice. When black carbon falls on the white ice, it immediately accelerates the melting. Yet reducing black carbon emissions has an equally immediate, positive impact.

In a separate event Finland co-hosted here this morning, experts from government, science and business highlighted two promising ways to tackle black carbon emissions in the Arctic. One is modernising outdated heating and power plants. Another is investing in clean and sustainable shipping. These approaches will not only bring climate and health benefits. They also make sense economically.

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As you well know, for the past two years Finland has been chairing the Arctic Council. During our chairmanship, we have done our best to maintain the Arctic as a region of opportunity. With our priorities – environmental protection, connectivity, meteorology and education – we have sought pragmatic cooperation for mutual benefit.

Our chairmanship ends in four weeks’ time, when the foreign ministers of all the eight council members meet in Rovaniemi. After that, we hand this responsibility over to Iceland. Two years later, Russia is the next one in line. Together, we must continue to make the best possible use of that exceptional framework.

Throughout its existence, the Arctic Council has been a forum for constructive dialogue. This spirit is by no means self-evident in the current international situation. That we have been able to maintain it in the Arctic Council during the past few years is a remarkable achievement. It is also a good objective for the future. Tensions outside the Arctic region must not be allowed to spill over into the Arctic Council.

But if we want to be more ambitious, we should aim to do more than simply protect the work of the Arctic Council from external controversies. We could also use it as a positive example for others, as a model for reducing tensions elsewhere. As Arctic nations we know that small, practical steps in mutually beneficial areas can help in building trust, even when major disagreements in other areas persist.

This example could be made even more powerful if we find ways to strengthen the cooperation between the Arctic Council and other regional bodies. The Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and the Northern Dimension Partnerships all make valuable contributions to a functioning Arctic governance. Sharing more information between them and the Arctic Council could be beneficial.

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Of course the Arctic region itself is not immune to tensions, either. It is clear to all of us that there is a growing strategic and economic interest in the Arctic. As the natural and political climates are changing, many actors see new opportunities in this region. And not all of those actors are Arctic by definition.

It does not automatically mean that all the new actors come to the region with only selfish intentions. But as the field gets more crowded, risks of confrontation increase. Primarily, I mean confrontation with the delicate natural balance of the Arctic environment. Unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility of confrontation in the power-policy sense, either.

Questions of hard security have always been kept outside the agenda of the Arctic Council. That has been intentional, and it is part of the secret to its success. There is no reason to change the mandate of the Council.

However, simply excluding these issues from the Council’s agenda will not make them go away. Together, the Arctic states have to find another way to responsibly address these issues, too. Once again, dialogue is key. Reducing tensions, managing risks, rebuilding trust. That can only work if we talk to each other.